A contributing editor at "Vanity Fair," Nina Munk’s work is widely published at the highest levels. For her new book, “The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty,” she spent six years following the Millennium Villages Project. The brainchild of Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs, MVP has over the past 10 years funneled more than $100 million into an ambitious antipoverty program in Africa. Munk’s book focuses closely on two villages — one in Kenya and the other in Uganda. In both she finds the ground littered with the unintended consequences of an inordinately ambitious project.
“Sachs offered a seductive message to Westerners: that they could be the saviors who could end poverty in Africa with a modest amount of effort,” wrote New York University economist William Easterly in “Barron’s.” “After reading Munk's superb book, nobody will ever again think ending poverty is really that easy.”
The Deseret News interviewed Munk on her book, on the roots of poverty in Africa, and on the potential for interventions that could end it.
DN: Did you begin your project as a skeptic?
NM: I don't think I knew enough to be skeptical. In hindsight, I went in naïvely. But, I think more than that, I went into it hopefully. Like most people, I want very much to believe that it is possible to end extreme poverty, and that we can do something to help people living lives of desperation. I wanted it to work out. In my book proposal I said I wanted this book to have a happy ending. Unfortunately, it didn't turn out as I had expected.
DN: What is the core takeaway from your book, if you had to sum it up in 30 seconds?
NM: In the quest to end poverty it is important to understand that theories that we develop in academic environments can't anticipate the chaos of the real world. In trying to put into practice the theories he outlined in "The End of Poverty," Jeffrey Sachs discovered that human beings are unpredictable and irrational. It turns out that ending poverty is a lot more complicated than some people think. It sounds obvious, but it's not.
DN: Give us some examples of the kinds of chaos in the Millennium Villages Project you saw that were simply not anticipated.
NM: The question is how you connect places in the middle of nowhere to the global economy. The Ugandan village I reported from, Ruhiira, is days away from the capital city. There are no paved roads, no electricity, no running water. Meanwhile Jeffrey Sachs and his team, hoping to create a modern economy from scratch, introduce fertilizer and high-yield seeds, with the idea that people would grow and sell cash crops — tomatoes, soybeans, corn. These are places where the most advanced farming technology is a hand hoe. And sure enough, when you introduce fertilizer, you get extraordinary results. In Ruhiira, in a single season average maize yields increased from 1.8 tons per hectare to 3.7 tons. There was an enormous bumper crop.
The problem was what to do with the crop. No one had really thought of the next stage. There were no storage facilities for the surplus, and there was no market for it. Southern Ugandans don’t like maize, but the village was so far away that any profits would be wiped out by transport cost. Then there were rats and vermin who took over the town. Eventually the farmers threw up their hands and dumped the maize on the market and prices collapsed.
Ruhiira is a perfect example of what goes wrong with well-intentioned ideas. Providing fertilizer and high-yield seeds is a magnificent idea. It looks flawless on paper. But soon you face a whack-a-mole problem. You fix one problem but a whole host of others suddenly pop up.
DN: Now you say this caught everyone off guard, but you can go back to Stalinist central planning and five-year plans, and you contrast that with Friedrich Hayek and others who emphasize market complexity, the role of prices in allocating resources, all these things we know we can't anticipate. This is a dialogue that has been going on for 100 years, isn’t it?
NM: You make a good point. This is something that the economist Bill Easterly has argued, that these big ideas imposed by outsiders can be breathtakingly arrogant. What, then, is the solution, if we care about the world's poor, as I hope most of us do.
If your goal is to help a limited number of people in a single village, you can do that. That's called charity. In the Millennium Villages Project many people's lives have been improved. There is less malnutrition, less malaria, more children in school in all of those villages. If you invest $5 or $10 million into an isolated African village, you are going to get results.
But we are really talking about something else. How do you accomplish economic development? How does it take root, and how can it be sustained in desolate places, where people are illiterate, there are no roads, no infrastructure?
DN: With the $100 million this project invested during its initial 10 years isn’t the key question opportunity cost. That is, what kind of progress could have been made with the same funds put to other uses?
NM: Yes. Some people have criticized my book for being negative, or for suggesting that foreign aid doesn't work. That's not what I'm saying at all. I am saying that our resources are limited, and only becoming more limited. So accountability and transparency are essential to make sure that every penny spent is being spent as well as it possibly can be. Far too many nonprofits and NGOs boast about the sums of money that they're spending on big projects. That's no way to evaluate an antipoverty program.
DN: In your book you focus on two villages. One is perched on a hill with no reliable water source because they would have to reverse gravity. The other is essentially a watering hole for camels in the middle of the desert. Why are we trying to force development into places that naturally resist it?
NM: These are parts of the world that are deeply hostile to human life. There is a reason why some of these places are as poor as they are, and there are economists who have argued that the solution to poverty is to get people out of these places. But I don't see Western Europe or the United States inviting millions of desert dwellers to come and live within our borders. So we're kind of stuck with efforts to try to uplift desolate, desperate places to a global economy.
Can it ever be done? Is it even possible to take places that have no natural resources, no water, no ports, no roads. . Is there any way to connect these people to the rest of the world? I'm not sure that there is. But that is where masses of the world's poorest people live.
DN: It sounds like you are saying that the Western countries that feel obliged to help must just commit to long-term maintenance in places where there really are no solutions.
NM: Look at the largest refugee camps in the world. There's one that I know well on the border of Kenya and Somalia, not far from where I did a lot of the reporting for my book. It's a sprawling camp, that is no longer really a refugee camp. These places have become cities in and of themselves, with functioning economies, schools, even a limited democracy with elected officials. Places like this represent a failure of foreign aid.
DN: One of the most poignant images in your book was a couple of brand-new neonatal incubators sitting unused in the corner of a clinic because there was no electricity in the village.
NM: The skeletons of well-intentioned development projects litter the continent of Africa — bridges that lead nowhere, rusted tractors, broken water wells, schools that were never completed, maternity wards that are crumbling. One of the great hurdles of charity work in Africa is making sure that the work is maintained. In many places there simply aren't the tools or the knowledge to maintain projects built by outsiders.
In Dertu, Kenya, where I spent a lot of time on the border of Somalia, there was a water well built by UNICEF in the 1990s. It's a life-saver for the area, one of few sources of water in an arid spread of land populated by nomadic camel herders. But every time the well pump breaks down, it can take months and months to fix it or for parts to arrive. And in the meantime, people just drop dead.
I saw with my own eyes that when resources are scarce, people become brutal. I was in the village one September when the water well broke down, and the Millennium Villages Project decided to keep people alive by bringing in huge water tanks to supply water. But the supply of water simply wasn't enough to sustain the people and their camels. And before long fighting broke out, and a 16-year-old boy was stabbed to death because he was accused of cutting in line for water. The driver of the water tanker was beaten up by a mob. When you see desperate people fighting over limited resources you begin to understand how fragile human life is there.
DN: In Dertu, thousands rely on a single water source. Is the Millennium Villages Project creating a magnet holding people somewhere that cannot support them?
NM: One of the consequences of the Millennium Villages Project pouring a lot of money into this pastoral community is that more and more people gave up being camel herders and decided to settle instead in town. Thanks to the Millennium Villages Project, Dertu became an island of prosperity. There was a fully functioning clinic, a vastly expanded school, all kinds of new investments that encouraged nomads to become sedentary. I returned again and again to Dertu, and I saw this place that had been a sort of wide-open pastoral area begin to resemble an urban slum, with tightly packed housing, sewage running through the streets. It was, again, a horrible unintended consequence of good intentions.
DN: So you have the compaction of the people, and then there is nothing really for them to do economically?
NM: Absolutely not. There is no economy to speak of in Dertu. The nomadic herdsman coming through trade or sell livestock. Some of them sell camel milk. Basically the only economic activity there has been gun-running and cattle raiding. This is the great failing of the Millennium Villages Project, and of so many other antipoverty efforts in developing parts of the world.
Jeffrey Sachs and his team came in and spent a great deal of money to lift people on what Sachs calls the “ladder of economic development.” Health care was improved, malaria went down, more children were in school. They had one success after another in basic indicators. But that doesn’t mean people had jobs. Nor was there is anything to suggest there could ever be industry in a place like this.
DN: What have you learned that you think extends to charity work and nonprofits generally?
The lack of transparency is unfortunately the only way that many NGOs know how to operate. They are afraid that if they tell their donors about failures the flow of money will stop. In order to keep funding, nonprofits are forced to paper over and in some ways lie about some outright failures. Anyone who has ever worked in development knows perfectly well that maybe as much as half the money ends up being wasted. We have to be willing to embrace failure to make progress. My book is not about the failure of a project. My book is about how excruciatingly difficult it is to lift people out of poverty, how we need to try harder and be more humble and honest with ourselves about what works and what doesn't.